Eugenics and Disability: History and Legacy in Washington

On March 22, 1909, Washington became the second state in the nation to pass a law allowing for the forced sterilization of people with disabilities and other citizens in the name of improving society. Why was eugenics so widely popular during the early 20th century? What is the significance today of the hidden and complex history of eugenics? This project, Eugenics and Disability: History and Legacy in Washington, begins to explore this local history and discuss how it may be relevant to contemporary attitudes and policies that impact people with disabilities and other communities.

On October 9, 2009, a day-long symposium at the University of Washington provided a forum for scholars, advocates, clinicians, service providers, policy makers, individuals with disabilities, and the general public to exchange views on why it is important to study and remember this dark chapter of state history. The symposium focused on the significance of disability in the history of eugenics and the need for further investigation into what happened in Washington state.

Thank you for visiting this website for the Eugenics and Disability project. We are continuing to add content, so please keep checking for updates and send us your feedback. We especially invite interested community allies to contact us.

Related Event

Joanne Woiak, "Voices from the Washington Archives: Eugenics and Forced Sterilization in State Institutions." Lecture on Tuesday March 15, 6:00-7:30p.m. University of Washington Odegaard Library 220.

This talk explores how disability was defined and deployed during the eugenics era, using archival records of sterilizations in Washington state institutions. Examples from patient files show how concepts of “insanity” and “mental deficiency” were inextricably tied to gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and class. The archives also include letters and purported transcripts of patient interviews before the sterilization board. These documents suggest that medical authorities, inmates, and families had differing perspectives on the meanings of “consent,” and they voiced a range of attitudes towards sterilization as a form of eugenics, social control, therapy, or contraception.

Part of the program "Unspeakable: Disability History, Identity, and Rights," a Winter 2011 series of lectures and films at the University of Washington. For more events and information, please go to http://uwdisability.wordpress.com/. "Unspeakable" is presented in conjunction with the traveling version of the Willard suitcase exhibit, "The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic," which has been brought to the University of Washington by Live Inclusive.